‘We Live in Cairo’: A promising, imperfect debut

The cast of “We Live in Cairo” .Photo:  Evgenia Eliseeva

CAMBRIDGE – It was the first revolution that played itself out on social media, and brought one million people out to raise their voices and topple a regime.

And it was one picture that began what was to become “We Live in Cairo,” the world premiere musical being presented by the American Repertory Theater.

Patrick Lazour was a senior at Boston College when he saw a photo of eight Egyptian students aged 16 to 22 staring at a MacBook computer – surrounded by cameras and Coke cans – as they uploaded tweets, videos and photos of protesters below in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring of 2011, seeking to overthrow the regime of Hosni Mubaruk, who had been in power for 30 years. Some 900 protesters died before Mubaruk left.

Lazour showed the photo to brother Daniel, then a sophomore at Columbia, and the two, originally from Boylston and of Lebanese descent, began to wonder if it had the making of a musical. Thus began a six-year journey of crafting the piece.

What they crafted follows six diverse characters who are representative of the various elements that came together to protest side-by-side in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring of 2011, bringing down Mubaruk, and follows the group for the next two years chronicling the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of Mohamed Morsi, and the military coup that ousted Morsi, and its aftermath.

The ART’s ability to nurture and support a work while it goes through the development process before this fully staged professional production is an invaluable asset for young talent such as the Lazours., who already boasted a Richard Rodgers Award before ART Artistic Producer Mark Lunsford saw “We Live in Cairo” in a staged reading in New York City in 2016. The Rodgers Award subsidizes production of a work by musical theater composers and writers who have yet to be established. The Lazours worked with ART Artistic Director Diane Paulus and had several residencies and a workshop at the American University in Cairo on the way to Cambridge.

Jakeim Hart and Parisa Shahmir in “We Live in Cairo.” Photo:
Evgenia Eliseeva

Alas, just as in the ART’s recent production of another new work – “Endlings” – had a promising first act. The Lazours can’t keep the momentum going all the way through Act II.

The sizzle of the first act when Mubaruk is toppled often leads to fizzle in Act II when the final bill for the last two years comes due, and the group begins to sort out the winners and the losers and to pin blames for what happened and didn’t happen. The play begins to wander around looking for a safe place to land

The characters earn the hard truth that while revolutions may foment change, that change may not be permanent or what the revolutionaries were looking for.

In its construction and even characters. “Cairo” is often on a parallel track with another musical about youthful change agents: “Rent.” “Cairo” has a guitar-toting singer/songwriter named Amir (the talented Jameim Hart) and “Rent” the guitar-toting singer/songwriter Roger Davis; the young Egyptians chronicle events on smartphones and MacBooks while Mark Cohen in “Rent” had his ubiquitous movie camera.

The musical numbers, credited to Daniel Lazour, performed by a seven piece orchestra led by keyboardist and Music Director Madeline Smith, do have some of the pop/rock flair of a “Hair” or “Rent” but also successfully incorporate the needed elements to define the time and place, helped by the frequent use of the oud, an iconic instrument in Middle Eastern musical culture Still, you would be hard-pressed to pick out more than one or two numbers that really resonated, but . the first number, “Genealogy of Revolution,” is effective and is performed with audience participating.

The brothers Lazour have created a pair of brothers who are at the heart of “We Live in Cairo.” he previously mentioned Christian songwriter Amir and his studious brother Hany (Abubakr Ali). Amir has a relationship with a young Muslim woman named Layla (Parisa Shahmir), which disturbs Hany.

Karim (Sharif Afifi), a graffiti artist, works the revolution one spray can at a time, and his understudy is Hassan (Gil Pereze-Abraham), whom Karim would like to be more than a friend but whose membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is a complicating factor in Hassan’s relationship with all of the other factors.

The bomb-tosser in the group is Fadwa (Dana Saleh Omar), who has already been jailed for a previous demonstration, and she breathes fire at every turn.

David Bengali’s vivid projections and video design  encompasses the entire theater, at times even using set designer Tilly Grimes’ white muslin ceiling; the overall effect is akin to an IMAX theater, immersing you right in the middle of the chaos and emotion of the protests and the celebration when  Mubaruk is finally forced to step down. The designers also project actual Tweets from the time in question.

If the Middle Eastern vibe feels genuine, it’s because the creators, the actors and many members of the creative team have Middle Eastern heritage; Director Taibi Magar has Egyptian heritage and choreographer Samar Haddad King has Palestinian roots.

The introduction of new musical theater talent into the genre is always a cause for celebration, and the talented Brothers Lazour have planted their flag and are already at work on a second piece.

The remarkable events of January 2011 marked a sea change in forcing regime change, as young people – armed with cell phones, laptops, Tweets and Facebook and a fearless disregard for their own safety – took down a dictator.

The American Repertory Theater production of “We Live in Cairo.” Book, music and lyrics by Daniel Lazour and Patrick Lazour. Directed by Taibi Magar; Choreography, Samar Haddad King; Music Supervision  Michael Starobin; Music Director, Madeline Smith; Scenic & Costume Design, Tilly Grimes; Lighting Design,Bradley King; Sound Design, Kai Harada; Projection & Video Design,David Bengali; Performances through June 23 at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 orwww.americanrepertorytheater.org

The cast of “We Live in Cairo.” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva